Program Seeks to Keep Mentally Ill Out of Jail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a Hollywood man known as Les pranced naked down the sidewalk of Wilcox Avenue recently, police officers chased him for two blocks, then brought him to the station to decide what to do with him.

In the past, routine dictated that officers take him to Parker Center, the Los Angeles Police Department's Downtown headquarters, for assessment. Depending upon that evaluation, he would have been taken to a mental health facility or the County Jail.

But this time the officers called SMART--the Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team. SMART is a new approach to a longstanding problem--a pilot program that began July 31 with the aim of reducing the number of mentally ill people who are jailed rather than treated.

The teams, consisting of an LAPD officer and a county mental health specialist, are on call for several stations, including those in the Hollywood Division. There are 10 staff members--five county mental health experts who have worked on similar emergency mobile psychiatric teams and five officers who are familiar with mental health issues.

Their job is to diagnose the mental condition of people who are arrested for such crimes as indecent exposure, disturbing the peace and petty theft. If it is decided that they are mentally ill, the units help officers place them in county or private mental health facilities, said Detective Warren Haines, a supervisor with the program.

"Police officers often arrest and incarcerate the person because they don't know what else to do," said Cynthia Telles, a UCLA psychologist who worked on the task force that helped create the program. The units know of treatment programs and counselors for people such as Les, any of which probably would be more appropriate and less costly to the county than sending him to jail, she said.

In this case, police had chased Les for two blocks as he threw off all that he was wearing: earrings, a bandanna and a baseball cap. Several officers finally caught him and got him into a cell while he yelled, cursed and refused to answer questions. Officers gave him pants and a blanket and called the response team.

A unit arrived at the Hollywood station to examine Les an hour later. But as he flailed his arms and continued yelling, they backed off, saying that he was too violent for them to tell what was influencing his behavior. For safety's sake, the unit asked Hollywood officers to take him in one of their caged cars to a facility that could help diagnose his condition.

After he eventually calmed down, it was determined that Les needed mental treatment.

Some of the officers who have seen the team at work are critical of it, largely because they say it as too time-consuming during LAPD's staffing shortages. One officer, referring to the previous evaluation system involving Parker Center, said: "It was easier and faster (before SMART)."

But Haines, the program supervisor, said: "The intent is not necessarily the time factor, (it) is to get the most appropriate care."

The program already has had a small impact on keeping some mentally ill people out of jail--in August, for instance, only one of the 82 calls that the units responded to resulted in an arrest, Detective Walter DeCuir, who oversees the program said.

Although jail officials caution that the program's effect on overcrowded conditions has been minimal, they consider it a small step in the right direction.

The Hollywood Division was chosen because officers there receive so many calls about nudity in public and other behavior that suggest mental illness, Haines said. That station, as well as the central bureau in the core of the city, are the only places that can call on the program now. But it could become countywide if the program receives a positive assessment from a USC psychologist who will evaluate its first year, DeCuir said. At that point, the program could link up with a similar pilot program the Sheriff's Department began this year to serve parts of the county.

And it could reach farther than that: "If this can work in L.A., it can work in any other city," DeCuir said.

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